In a follow-up to an earlier entry, I got another letter from Rep. David Price, informing me that he is now a co-sponsor of H.R. 1157, the Freedom to Read Protection Act of 2003. I guess he finally figured out that when you have two major research university library systems in your district, you ought to support a bill that's incredibly popular with librarians and library users.
On the book side, my collection has been growing far too quickly lately, much faster than I can actually read the incoming books. I'm either going to have to discover a heretofore unknown degree of self-control on the purchasing side or figure out a way to cram in yet more shelves. Anyways, on to recently finished stories and books.
First up, I finished The O. Henry Prize Stories: 2002. I won't bother to review the individual stories because, quite frankly, many of them are so mediocre, they don't really deserve such consideration. The best story in the collection is "Scordatura", covered in a previous journal entry. I also enjoyed "Memento Mori" by Jonathan Nolan, though I think the screenplay which was developed from this story (Memento) was better. "The Hunter's Wife" by Anthony Doerr is a nice fantasy story, about a woman who can see the after death experience of dying animals and people and share their experience with others. However, the story undermines itself by refusing to be just a fantasy; it has to be about feminism and patriarchy and man's relationship with nature, with the fantastic element pushed to a largely metaphorical role which wasn't as interesting as it could have been. I also enjoyed David Foster Wallace's "Good Old Neon". As usual with Wallace, there's not much plot in this first-person recounting of a life leading up to a suicide, but Wallace's hypnotically bizarre stream of consciousness is just fun to read. Of course, this is another story that would have been better if it would have stuck with its conceit of being narrated from beyond the grave; instead the end is a ridiculous and unsatisfying metafictional mess. Many of the remaining stories share the theme of people making themselves and others miserable for no apparently good reason, and the stories just aren't interesting enough to make me care about these depressed and boring characters. I think they could vastly improve the quality of stories they select if they'd open up the selection to include non-"literary" publications. Ironically, the judges for 2002 included Joyce Carol Oates, who has published extensively in fantasy and horror mags, and Dave Eggers, whose McSweeney's just did a pulp SF issue, so you'd think they'd know better.
Moving on to a much better book, next up is Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas (Ministry of Whimsy Press, 2000). This is a collection of short stories set in the human colony city of Paxton, aka Punktown, now home to both humans and countless varieties of bizarre aliens. In each beautifully written story, Thomas explores some facet of how technology will permit humans to change themselves, and asks whether it's worth it to give up some part of our humanity. The stories are almost uniformly dark and tragic, all the more so because in a few short pages, Thomas creates such sympathetic characters that their suffering is truly heartbreaking. He starts off with clones, in "The Reflections of Ghosts", in which Drew creates and accelerates the growth of clones of himself, which he then sells as works of art. But when he creates his masterwork, a female version of himself, tragedy results. In "Immolation", Thomas introduces us to Magnesium Jones, a clone created solely for a 5-year life as a factory worker, but who escaped and now lives on his own doing jobs for the criminal underground. Manipulated by the Union (representing non-clone human workers displaced by the clones) and the capitalist owners of the factory, Jones' last job goes tragically wrong. On the subject of memory, Thomas gives us "The Flaying Season", in which a woman has had 3 years of terrible memories excised from her mind, and "The Library of Sorrows", in which a police detective has a memory enhancement chip that permits him perfect recall of every crime scene he's been on. In the end, neither finds happiness in their modified state. And so on. Every one of these stories features unforgettable characters and settings. Highly recommended.
Back on the "literary" side is Gary Lutz's Stories in the Worst Way (3rd Bed, 2002). Again, these are unremittingly depressing stories, mostly in first-person, featuring characters whose lives have gone terribly awry. What saves these stories is their extreme brevity (many are only one page), and Lutz's fascinating use of language. The plot and characters are often secondary to clever phrasing, neologisms and other word play. A good read if you find amusement in such things.
And then, there's the the miscellaneous shorter fiction. Veil of the Soul by Trey R. Barker (Yard Dog Press, 2002) is a novella based on the life of Edgar Allan Poe. Told in the first-person by Poe as he lays dying, this is a whirlwind tour of his tragic life and works. I don't know enough about Poe's life to know how much is real and how much is fictionalized, but it makes for a gripping story of a short phenomenal life, as Poe remembers his parents, his mother, his wives, and his writing. A very good little story.
"The Engine of Desire" by William Barton (Asimov's 8/02) is set after the presumed conclusion of a galaxy-spanning war between the Spinfellows and the Starfish, in which humanity was forced into service by the Spinfellows, largely as cannon fodder. Crystal is one of the few humans left travelling the stars, trying to keep his ship running so he can search for others. This was a decent story, but it felt like it was part of a larger sequence of stories or a novel; I kept waiting for an explanation of what was going on that never really came.
Riding the Rock by Stephen Baxter (PS Publishing, 2002) is quite explictly part a larger series, Baxter's ongoing Xeelee series, which cover the history of humanity from the near future to tens of thousands of years into the future, through seemingly endless galactic wars with the Xeelee, the Qax, and other aliens set on the extermination of humanity. Riding the Rock is set tens of thousands of years into the war, at a time when humanity has retaken most of the galaxy and quarantined the Xeelee in the core. To keep mankind united across its vast empire, the Commission on Historical Truth is tasked with establishing and maintaining a single Doctrine across the worlds. Luca is a novice in the Commission, asked to accompany Commissary Dolo and Captain Teel on a mission to the front lines to investigate the emergence of a possible non-Doctrine religion. There, on an asteroid which is to be projected through Xeelee space in a desparate maneuver to sneak men close enough to Xeelee emplacements to damage them, he discovers what it means to be a solider on the front lines, facing the imminent threat of death, and he learns of the sacrifices that must be made by humanity to keep the front lines manned. This is one of the better entries in the Xeelee sequence, with an exciting and fast-moving plot, and lots of ethical dilemmas for young Luca. I wish Baxter could keep all the Xeelee stories at this level.
In "Unseen Demons", a novella by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog 7-8/02), humanity is faced with an entirely different sort of alien. The Catarkhans have evolved on such a non-threatening and slow-changing world that they have no sense of sight or hearing, and are unable to feel pain. After several years, neither the Hom.Saps nor any of the other alien races that have established embassies on the planet have been able to make the Catarkhans take any notice of their presence. But when a human kills several of the Catarkhans, it falls to legal counsel Andrea Cort to resolve the problem of how to bring him to justice when the first contact conventions call for trial and punishment to be brought by the natives. This is basically a legal thriller, a la Grisham, but with a variety of bizarre aliens complicating the picture. A nice story, though the only possible conclusion becomes obvious a bit too early on.
The short story "Tread Softly" by Brian Stableford (Interzone 3/02) tells of a soldier back from war who acquires a magic carpet. Stableford's carpets don't fly, however; instead they have the power to inspire fantastic dreams and hallucinations when stepped on or slept upon. This is a nicely told little fable. "Dating Secrets of the Dead" by David Prill (F&SF 6/02) is a whimsical short story about life in the cemetery as the dead go on with their lives until their bodies finally decay to the point of uselessness. Our hapless narrator has fallen for one of the cemetery's newest residents, and with the advice of an old friend, he manages to befriend her despite the loss of an eye, and then an arm and more as his body decays. A cute and charming little story.
James Patrick Kelly's "Luck" (Asimov's 6/02) is one of those stories set in a primitive culture, telling the story of Thumb, who becomes a mammoth-killer and saves his people. I've never been a big fan of primitive-peoples stories, and even at only novelette length, I think this one went on longer than it needed to. Finally, Caitlin Kiernan's "Nor the Demons Down Under the Sea" (Children of Cthulhu) is the tale of a lesbian couple visiting an old house where they are haunted by the terrible sacrifices that had been made there to the gods of the sea. Potentially a nice setup, but it spent far too long establishing the the character's relationship before they even get to the haunted house, and then rushed through the events that transpired, so the story just doesn't feel particularly horrific.
And now it's time figure out what books to pack for the next two weeks.